By Rebecca Bulnes
By Lee Zimmerman
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With her fifth album, Rebelution, Tanya Stephens is making a bid for the title that Bob Marley continues to hold 25 years after his death. Strong lyrics and musical versatility puts Stephens in the front running to become reggae ambassador to the world. Her style leans strongly toward the patois-heavy chanting of dancehall, but she still maintains the integrity and conviction of roots reggae. Unlike many of her peers who seem intent on committing career suicide by replacing Jamaican music's positive messages with undercurrents of malignant homophobia, Stephens wants to shake up the dick-swinging establishment and get rid of her genre's stigma. The boys might have to step aside. She makes her mission plain on the track "Who Is Tanya": "World domination [is] the plan ya."
When she first made waves on the dancehall scene in 1997, Stephens was a braggadocious artiste with a nasal voice, boasting about her insatiable libido like so many of her peers. Her second album, Too Hype, included explicit empowerment anthems like "Goggle," "Yuh Nuh Ready (Fe This Yet)," and "Big Ninja Bike." She was racking up hits in the Caribbean, but Stephens yearned to share her views on more than what she refers to as "the same old four topics" the dancehall staples of sex, religion, lyrical prowess, and material wealth.
"I grew past that, and I didn't feel the need to exert myself so much. I was like, You know what? I've done the sex thing, and it isn't so exciting. I need to talk about something else. I'm bored with that," Stephens says.
The slender and apparently ageless Stephens moved on and then some. She kicked down the door to global success with her critically acclaimed third album, Gangsta Blues. Her singles "Big Heavy Gyal," "Boom Wuk," and an a cappella version of "I Am Woman" became instant classics. The plaintive, bass-heavy lament "It's a Pity" proved to be Stephens's biggest hit to date. From day one, the streets were feeling her. Gangsta Blues demonstrated her evolution as an artist and won her glowing praise from unlikely sources, including Vibe magazine, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. Stephens credits her success to a combination of modesty and a strong support system. "I never got caught up in the video life. As real life goes on, I go on with it, because everything about me is real," she explains.
Everything? If that's the case, then Stephens has a hell of a love life, and a lot of 'splaining to do to her significant other. "Well, I'd probably say that some 80 percent of my lyrics are real, but I won't say which," she says with a laugh. "The only thing I wish to clarify is that 'Little White Lie' is not my story." For the record, Stephens isn't currently accepting any come-ons. She's happily settled with a gentleman who sounds like quite a catch. "I would say he's very confident in our relationship. We see it for what it is. We know that [my success in this industry] is an illusion. We know that all of what seems like glitter and glamour is only temporary. Even though I have lasted five albums and hope to drop another five, it's still temporary," she explains.
Stephens's skepticism and humility come from her experiences in the Jamaican music industry. Many artists who get caught up in the industry machine could learn from a veteran like her. "Stars are infinite, and they last forever. They shine from the day they're born until the day they die. I wouldn't compare myself to that. I don't attach any importance to the whole industry diva ting," she says vehemently. As a woman who fought to stretch her musical boundaries, she is tired of seeing one-hit or one-album wonders go through the same song and dance. "I wonder if people can see the inevitable progression. It's so obvious. You come out and you have all of the honesty about the sufferation that motivated you to be as passionate as you are, and then suddenly you become this larger-than-life person. You start dissing all of the people who you need to help you stay where you are. It happens every time," she says with a short, sharp laugh.
Even now, at the peak of her success, she remains aware of the vagaries of her particular genre. "In the unlikely event that sadly I should flop one day, I won't have to worry about having to grovel and crawl back to where I come from, because I never left. I'm not the type of person who will hang on to the industry and feel like I'll die if people don't like me anymore. I would just be grateful for what I've got. Even if people should say we want something different, variety is the spice of life, I would still be happy. Because I was here," Stephens says sincerely.
Who could ever tire of Tanya? The sonic landscape of Rebelution features influences that range from rock to blues to gospel to classic soul. She tackles topics that few dancehall artists are ready to touch. The album begins with the "Rebelution Intro," a militant manifesto to the changes she plans to initiate. "Spilt Milk" deals with a soured romance; "Dirty Thoughts" is classic, oversexed, slow-wine Tanya. "Warn Dem" examines the repercussions of violence in the slums, and the album's first single, "These Streets," calls out to a restless lover looking for hood glory. The album's most incendiary track is "Do You Still Care," a lilting ditty that compares homophobia to racism and places dancehall's bad boys squarely in the spotlight. Ask Stephens about the rampant hatred in Jamaica's musical culture, and she gets heated. In fact she goes into an eloquent diatribe.